Wednesday, March 13, 2013

"Baseball is not life itself, although..."

Season Ticket, 1988
Anyone who's deeply affectionate for the game of baseball—Roger Angell included—risks falling into maudlin weepiness at the sport's beauty. This is my least-favorite characteristic of baseball writing, the sentimentality that burnishes a game into gauzy, gold-flecked perfection, a metaphor for life and all things innocent. Such mawkishness should be resisted at all costs, lest it encourage the mawker to ignore the painful and quite ordinary realities of the game (a game played by flawed men, not seraphs). Metaphor, the beautiful, generous magic trick of art, should be used sparingly; too often, baseball writers and fans alike succumb to purple language when describing the game, to choose sentimentality over sentiment. This is one of the reasons why I've always admired Angell: he betrays himself as a enormous fan of baseball, but stops short at mythologizing the game, letting his vivid and precise descriptions of baseball's simple (and complex) pleasures do the work for him, as it should be. He's a master of the simile—as I've written before, no one describes a plate appearance as memorably as Angell does—but, perhaps influenced by his step-dad E.B. White, he employs figurative language economically. Rarely does he sentimentalize without soon catching himself wryly, easing up with his language in an it's-only-a-game shake of his head. Yet any lover finds it difficult to resist the language of love. And that language is florid.

Angell comes close to preciousness in a paragraph in "La Vida," an essay he wrote throughout the summer of 1987 that appeared in his fourth baseball book, Season Ticket, in 1988. (I can't find this in the New Yorker archives, so I presume it was written for the collection.) He writes:
Baseball is not life itself, although the resemblance keeps coming up. It’s probably a good idea to keep the two sorted out, but old fans, if they’re anything like me, can’t help noticing how cunningly our game replicates the larger schedule, with its beguiling April optimism; the cheerful roughhouse of June; the grinding, serious, unending (surely) business of midsummer; the September settling of accounts, when hopes must be traded in for philosophies or brave smiles; and then the abrupt running-down of autumn, when we wish for—almost demand—a prolonged and glittering final adventure just before the curtain. But nowhere is this metaphor more insistent than in baseball’s sense of slippage; our rueful, fleeting awareness that we tend to pay attention to the wrong things—to last night’s rally and tomorrow’s pitching match-up—while lesser and sweeter moments slide by unperceived. 
This leads to a few memorable pages on manager Earl Weaver, but not without mild worrying with its purple shading. What saves the paragraph from Ken Burns Over Metaphor is the mature wit of Angell's writing and the smartness of the seasonal metaphors, but especially the wisdom of the last sentence. He writes, "But"—my favorite word in the English language, and the coveted tool of all personal essayists—we're paying attention to the wrong stuff. This introduction of dissent, of our own silly and misguided wrongdoing, rubs up uneasily against the grand seasonal metaphors. Angell suggests that the real malfeasance is not in ignoring the game's "lesser and sweeter moments" but in ignoring life's. He was 66 years old when he wrote this, and for years in his baseball essays had been gently chiding himself an old, foolish man wasting time on a kids game. But with age (and the gift of language) comes well-earned incisiveness: Angell skirts sentimentality while implicating us all in the dangers of swooning to the Big Ideas when the smaller, unnoticed events are happening right behind us. And without us.

As Angell himself would say: "And so on."

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